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Persimmons

by Kevin O'Donnell, November 2000

The other day, while walking to work in Johnson City [Tennessee], I came across a persimmon tree I'd never noticed before, on an old fence line, at the edge of a neighbor's yard.

I picked up some of the orangish fruits and eyed them warily.  The fruit of the persimmon is notoriously bitter unless it's completely ripe.  As early as four centuries ago, Captain John Smith wrote of the persimmon, "If it not be ripe, it will draw a man's mouth awrie with much torment."

Yet when the fruit IS ripe, it lives up to the tree's genus name, Diospyros (Dio-spyros), which means "fruit of the gods."

Perhaps the persimmon's dual nature -- its extreme sweetness AND bitterness -- helps to account for the fascination that some people have with the fruit.

But Southerners, especially, esteem the persimmon for its long associations with the American South.  Accounts of the fruit are scattered throughout the region's historical annals.

In the sixteenth century, Hernando DeSoto, the guileful and brutal would-be conquistador, was offered loaves of persimmon bread by native Americans in the area of Memphis.  And he discovered dried persimmons in native villages that were deserted before the hostile advances of his army into Arkansas.  Two centuries later, French traders wrote about persimmon bread, which they bartered from the Creoles in the lower Mississippi valley.  And in the 19th century, during the civil war, Confederate partisans extolled the virtues of the native persimmon, as a way of beating the blockade.  Confederate soldiers boiled persimmon seeds into a substitute for coffee, and cooked the fruit into a war-time syrup, said to be a passable substitute for molasses.

But the persimmon also has a pre-historical lineage that ties the American south -- and more specifically southern Appalachia -- to a region on the other side of the globe.

That's because Diospyros is one of a group of more than fifty genera of plants that southern Appalachia shares with Eastern Asia.  That's right, Eastern Asia.  This group of plants occurs both here and in Eastern Asia, but nowhere else in the world.  The group includes dogwoods, hollies, tulip-poplars, jack-in-the-pulpits, ginseng, and of course, persimmons.  Botanist Asa [ A-za ] Gray was the first to intuit an Asian connection, while perusing botanical collections in Japan, back in the 1850's.  It turns out, after much investigation, that Appalachia is botanically more similar to Asia than it is to Europe, to Africa, or even to the American West.

Now how could this be?, you may ask.  Scientists are not absolutely sure, but the most widely accepted explanation is that the plants shared by Asia and Appalachia are the remnants of an ancient plant community that once circled the globe.  Over the course of time, geological disturbance and glaciation wiped these plants from most of the Earth.  Yet, for the past 250 million years, the mountains of Southern Appalachia have never been beneath the sea.  Nor have they been glaciated.  The same is true for parts of Eastern Asia.  So plants native to both these regions have survived, and evolved, and form a continuous community.

Of course, the plants have evolved separately over time.  That's why American ginseng, for example, is not quite the same as Chinese ginseng.  But this plant community, so the theory goes, has maintained a continuous line of descent.

So the next time you enjoy a helping of persimmon pudding, you might think of the old South.  Or you might ponder DeSoto's bloody march from Florida to the Mississippi.  You might also consider the connection that Southern Appalachia has with Eastern Asia.

For environmental news, this is Kevin O'Donnell.


This article was originally produced by the author as a script for Environmental News on WETS-FM radio November 1, 2000.  “Environmental News,” was a weekly half-hour radio program created by a group of volunteer East Tennessee State University students, faculty and staff in Johnson City, TN.  It aired Sunday evenings, 6:30-7 p.m., on WETS-FM , the campus public radio station in Johnson City, TN, and on WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, Ky.  Unfortunately, it is no longer being aired.  persimmonpudding.com thanks author Kevin O'Donnell, Ph.D. for his permission (granted January 29, 2009) to run the article here.  
Dr. O'Donnell is a Professor of English at East Tennessee State University.